Hidden salt

Australians are consuming up to 10 times the amount of sodium we need for good health.
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01 .Introduction

Around 70% of our processed meats, cheeses and sauces contain unacceptably high levels of sodium, but it's not always easy to detect. For example, a McDonald’s large chocolate shake contains as much sodium as its large-size fries. 

Biscuits, cakes and pastries can be stealth suppliers of sodium, as sodium bicarbonate (bi-carb soda or baking soda) is used as a raising agent - and one teaspoon of baking soda contains 1000mg of sodium (we need just 460mg a day for good health). It is also used as a filling agent for fizzy or dissolvable sweets. A single roll of Wonka Fruit Tingles contains 350mg of sodium – a quarter of a child’s upper daily intake from only 34g of sweets. Some breakfast cereals, as our reports consistently show, contain alarming amounts of salt.  

Takeaway sodium

Takeaway foods can be packed with salt, but you'd never know, as nutritional information or ingredients don’t need to be disclosed. A 2009 survey by the Australian Division of World Action on Salt and Health (AWASH) of major fast food chains KFC, Hungry Jack’s, Oporto, Red Rooster, Subway and McDonald’s, showed 75% of burger and sandwich-style products provided more than 50% of an adult's recommended daily sodium limit.

FSANZ has found foods that contain the highest levels of sodium per 100g are sauces, spreads and condiments, potato crisps, processed meat and meat products, including sausages, meat pies, sausage rolls and chicken nuggets, cheese and pizza. CHOICE’s own review of almost 300 pizzas showed 30% are “high salt”; some blow your daily limit with just a couple of slices.

Beware so-called "healthy" products

Salt pie chartRecent surveys – including one by the Australian food regulator FSANZ – show that processed foods contributing most to our salt intake are those we consider “healthy”. Our bread and cereal articles certainly confirm this.

Earlier this year, manufacturers George Weston Foods, Goodman Fielder Baking, Allied Mills and Cripps Nubake, and retailers Woolworths, Coles and ALDI agreed to reduce sodium across bread products to 400mg/100g by the end of 2013. CHOICE’s recent review of multigrain breads found just 25% of multigrain breads are currently below this target. Add a spread such as Vegemite to your bread your sodium intake jumps; a simple Vegemite sandwich can supply 50% of a small child's daily limit.

The voluntary target, established by the government’s Food and Health Dialogue, is the same sodium limit as the Heart Foundation’s tick criteria for breads. The foundation cites feedback from industry, current technology and consumer acceptance as the reasons a lower target is not feasible. In Finland –a leader in salt reduction - the ‘Heart Symbol’ is only given to breads with 280mg/100g of sodium or less.

CHOICE is calling for consumer education, clear food labelling and a traffic light labelling system that helps consumers make healthier food choices.


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It’s estimated we currently munch through twice the daily suggested dietary target for salt (1600mg), despite the significant health risks. High blood pressure (anything approaching around 140 over 90) and cardiovascular disease are two risk factors associated with a high-salt diet. In fact, even with fairly low blood pressure, the risk of stroke, heart attack and heart failure will increase with a raise in blood pressure. 

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is Australia’s biggest killer and the second-largest contributor to our burden of disease after cancer. CVDs have a highly preventable and treatable group of diseases risk factors – one being high blood pressure. Experts in Britain say a 10% reduction in their overall salt consumption has already saved over 6,000 lives a year.

Salt and children's intake

2007 Australian National Children's Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey found that sodium intake in 2 to 16 year olds exceeds their upper daily limits, It also found sodium intake in 2-3 year olds was 167% of their daily maximum. Average sodium intake by 9-16 year olds even exceeded the upper daily limit set for adults.

Recommended daily sodium intakes

To prevent chronic disease, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has set 1600mg as the daily suggested Dietary Target (SDT) for sodium. Recommended adequate intakes and upper limits are listed below for specific ages.


Source: The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Nutrient Reference Values. AI Adequate Intake; UL Recommended Upper Daily Limit; all values as per the NHMRC. * Source from breast milk, formula and food only.

Here is how you can be more salt-aware:

  • Avoid processed, prepared and pre-packaged foods.
  • Eat more fresh fruit and vegetables and minimise high sodium soups, sauces and condiments, canned and preserved goods and prepared mixes. Keep takeaways and fast foods such as burgers, fried chicken and pizza to an occasional treat.
  • Know your recommended sodium intakes. Use the NHMRC adequate and upper daily intakes to guide your dietary sodium consumption.
  • Check nutritional information labels. Compare products, brands and varieties and choose lower sodium options (<120mg/100g) where possible and avoid high sodium (> 600mg/100g) foods.
  • Consider serving sizes. How much are you eating? Even low sodium products can supply a lot of sodium if eaten in large amounts.
  • Read ingredients lists. Salt (rock, sea, celery, garlic), baking soda, sodium bicarbonate, celery salt, garlic salt and monosodium glutamate (MSG, additive 621) are all high sodium ingredients.
  • Remove the salt shaker from the table and don’t add salt to your children’s food when cooking.
  • Avoid sodium heavyweights such as packaged stock, Asian sauces - like soy, oyster and fish, mustard, pickles and mayonnaise; at the very least, choose low-salt varieties.
  • Use alternatives. Lemon juice, garlic, vinegar or herbs and spices instead of salt when cooking.
  • Choose salt-free or low-sodium products. Retrain your tastebuds; research shows that our sensitivity to ‘saltiness’ increases so less salt is needed.
  • Check your meds. Some over-the-counter and prescription drugs may contain sodium. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about yours if you need to reduce your dietary sodium.

Using nutritional information panels

Salt nutrition informationAverage serving size and servings per package are chosen by the manufacturer so can vary between brands as well as product type. Always check the serving size: if you're eating more than the recommended serve, you'll be exceeding the "quantity per serving information" in the panel.

Quantity per serving is helpful when consuming single serve products. Check serving size and servings per pack to determine nutritional information for multi-serve products.

Quantity per 100g is a handy way to compare products that have different weights or serving sizes. Use this information to determine whether a food is high or low in sodium.

% daily intake [%DI] for sodium is based on 2300mg, which is the maximum recommended daily intake for adults; 1600mg is the NHMRC’s suggested daily target while 460-920mg is an adequate adult intake for good health.

Lack of both government leadership and current food and nutrition data have been major obstacles in Australia’s salt-reduction campaign. Non-government groups such as the Australian Division of World Action on Salt & Health (AWASH) and the Heart Foundation of Australia have taken the lead here while some food manufacturers have been proactive in reducing added salt.

Only recently have moves have been made by government to address these deficiencies:

  •  The Food and Health Dialogue was formed last year to focus on raising the nutritional profile of foods through reformulation, consumer education and portion standardisation. Members include the Australian Food and Grocery Council, the National Heart Foundation of Australia, Woolworths, the Public Health Association of Australia and CSIRO. However progress is slow; from 10 priority reformulation categories, sodium targets have only been set for bread and cereals and these will be implemented voluntarily by manufacturers and retailers.
  • The Australian Health Survey (AHS) – the first comprehensive national health and nutrition survey since 1995- is scheduled to begin next year. At this stage that the AHS plans to collect measurements of urinary sodium which will provide an accurate baseline from which to measure the effectiveness of sodium reductions.
  •  A review of food labelling laws and policy in Australia is considering national policies on nutrition, consumer choice, healthy lifestyles and enforcement issues. The Review’s final report is expected in December 2010 and will contribute to the development of the National Food Plan. 

Finland and UK lead the way

Finland was one of the first countries to decrease its population’s dietary sodium. Mass-media campaigns, working with the food industry, and labeling legislation has lead to reduced sodium levels in processed foods. Since the 1970s, food that’s high in salt must carry this warning.

In 2003, the UK began a population-based approach to reducing salt. Working with industry, the UK government’s campaign reduced sodium in key foods and successfully reduced the population’s average intake by from 9.5g to 8.6g salt (3440mg sodium) in 2008; lower targets are set for 2012.

In 2008, the European Union established a framework on salt reduction to ensure a common, population level strategy across Europe. The targets –a reduction of at least 16% against 2008 national baseline levels over four years- is applicable to all food products as well as to food consumed in restaurants and catering facilities.

The New York City Health Department is coordinating the National Salt Reduction Initiative, which has set two and four year targets for sodium reduction in 62 categories of packaged food and 25 categories of restaurant food.

CHOICE verdict

  • A government-led, nationwide information campaign should be undertaken to educate the public about the importance of dietary sodium reduction and the impact of their food purchase decisions.
  • Mandatory sodium targets must be considered if industry fails to demonstrate voluntary reductions are having a meaninful impact on sodium intake.
  • Food labelling must clearly and accurately convey nutritional information to the consumer.
  • CHOICE is calling for a traffic light labelling system that allocates red, amber and green lights to foods based on their fat sugar and sodium content.
  • Until traffic light labelling is introduced, we believe that for sodium:
        • Percentage daily intake (%DI) references should be based on the NHMRC’s upper adequate intake for adults (920mg)
        • Child-targeted food products should show %DI values based on accepted nutritional guidelines for children rather than the adult daily maximum of 2300mg
        • Nutrient information, including sodium, should be readily available at point of purchase for takeaways and fast foods so healthier choices can be easily made by consumers.
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